Set the Table with…Figs
Written onAugust 17 , 2016
Figs may not seem like a Vermont kind of crop—the fruits are more associated with warmer climates. However, one local Vermonter has dug into his Italian roots and has been successfully growing figs for five years. Steve Colangeli, a high school science teacher, grows seven varieties of figs on his small farm in Charlotte. He estimates that in 2015 he produced 3,000 to 4,000 figs. I recently spoke with Steve about figs and his five-acre Paradiso Farm.
Why did you decide to grow figs in Vermont?
I was looking for something that other people weren’t doing. I didn’t really want to compete with large growers. My grandparents grew figs in New Rochelle, New York, and then I took a class at the NOFA Vermont winter conference on growing figs in cold climates. The room was packed and flooded out into the hallway. In fact, security had to kick people out because it was a fire hazard. As I was sitting there, it struck me how many people were interested in this. They were so passionate about it and had all these personal stories and questions related to figs. So it resonated with me that it might be kind of a neat thing to do. I bought a of couple trees from out of state and started propagating them and it spiraled out of control after that.
Can you give us a quick tutorial on how you grow figs in Vermont?
I grow most of mine in containers, as large as 25 gallons, in the greenhouse. They’re a deciduous tree so they need a cold dormant period to produce figs. In the wintertime you want to put them in the dark, somewhere between 35 and 45 degrees. So once the fall comes, I move them from the greenhouse into a garage that’s attached to the house. If I need to supplement with a little heat in there I can, but it usually stays pretty warm. When the spring comes, I’ll pull them out. And then in late August through October they’re producing figs, depending on the variety.
I read that figs can produce two types of crops. Can you explain the difference? Do they both taste the same?
The first crop is the breba crop and that comes out on the old wood. A lot of times you’ll start to see those little figs before the leaves even start coming out. You don’t get as many of these as with the main crop of figs. Most people will say they’re not as good as the main crop but you can eat them. And then you’ll get the main crop, which is on the new growth. They will come due in late August, September. It’s amazing. I have trees that are only a few years old that can push out 50 to 100 figs a tree. I have one tree that doesn’t look that big but it put out more than 200 figs last year.
How do you know when a fig is ripe?
Most of them will start off green. Then they’ll get bigger and bigger and sit there for a long time not really doing anything. All of a sudden, almost overnight, they’ll start to change and puff up and get larger. A couple of days later they will start to droop and when they’re really ripe the skin will start to tear a little bit. On the bottom of the fig—they call it the eye—you’ll see a little nectar dripping out of it. Then you’re in the prime to pick it. At that point they only have two or three days before they go bad. Figs don’t ripen after you pick them. The figs you get from California that you might buy in a supermarket are actually picked early so they have a longer shelf life but they’re not ever really that ripe.
How do you store figs if you aren’t going to eat them immediately?
They fit perfectly in egg cartons. That’s how I deliver them to restaurants. I usually keep them in the refrigerator and you may get a couple more days out of them.
Tell us about your relationships with chefs and restaurants.
Last year I started making some connections with restaurants. I made a call over to Shelburne Farms Inn because I wanted to hit a couple of high-end restaurants that were doing a lot with local food. David Hugo was just amazing and really open to working with me. I didn’t have to call him in advance; I’d just pop in and bring him a dozen or I’d bring him four dozen and he would immediately put them on as a special. Then Marc Provencher from Taverna Khione [in Shelburne] called me and I started working with him. Most of the time the chefs tried not to cook them because they wanted to keep the original fresh flavor. I also worked a little bit with Gusto Gelato [in Shelburne]. We’re also going to try and work with Lake Champlain Chocolates this year. Last year they dehydrated some of my figs and dipped them in chocolate and I think they are going to sell those out of their store on Pine Street. And then, people are buying them just out of my greenhouse. I have people who know I’m there and kind of hunt me out.
You’ve also recently partnered with Red Wagon Plants.
Yes, this year we’re bringing some trees over to them and doing a seminar, kind of a “Fig Growing 101 in Vermont.” There are stores and garden centers up here where you can buy fig trees, but they’re all coming from out of state. Figs seem to hybridize and acclimate to where they are, so there is a value to buying a tree that’s grown in Vermont. I feel that my trees [also for sale, in addition to the fruits] are going to survive a lot better than ones that are coming from Georgia.
What’s next for Paradiso Farm?
I just put up a larger greenhouse, and I’m starting to plant some in the ground and work on some techniques to keep them alive in the greenhouse over the winter without heating it. And I’ve been roasting coffee on the farm and just launched our new coffee business. Similar to figs, there’s a huge difference between coffee roasted within a week versus what you get at the supermarket. We’re also going to do a cold brew coffee on nitro gas, so it comes out on a tap. It’s potent. So starting this year I’ll be selling fig trees and the coffee at the Richmond Farmers’ Market on Friday nights. At the end of August and into October I’ll also be selling fresh figs.
How are farms like Paradiso influencing the agricultural landscape of Vermont?
I think there are a lot of opportunities to be creative. There are things out there that we don’t realize we can grow up here. If you can take advantage of it, you can have a really good market. I try and get my high school students to look at areas of agriculture that maybe they haven’t thought of—areas that are new and upcoming and actually pretty lucrative as far as diversified production. You can get started for not a lot of money or acreage. The reality is, land is expensive and most people aren’t going to be able to go out and buy big plots of land. You can do quite a bit on an acre.